When Words Collide

Mon, April 12th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: April 12th, 2010 at 3:27pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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FRANK MILLER'S NEW GODS

"What have you done with our son, Darkseid!??" shouts the furious but physically restrained Tigra. "I know he was taken from his quarters!! Where is he!?"

"Where he can at last serve me usefully!! -- A tool for peace!!" replies the seated Darkseid, calm and patient in contrast with the rage of his mate.

The angry conversation continues, and then Tigra says, "Our son was raised without ever knowing his father!!"

"But I know him, Tigra!!" says Darkseid, "He's like you! -- A fighting, snarling killer-cat!!"

As the thrashing wild-haired young woman is carried off by Darkseid's guards, she shouts, "He'll live! He'll grow! He'll kill you!!"

The child, taken away from his mother, was, of course, little Orion.

Such is the scene -- or my abridged version of it -- from Jack Kirby's "New Gods" #7, from perhaps his masterpiece on that series, entitled "The Pact."

Twenty-seven years later, as Frank Miller finished his last "Sin City" story, and a year before the release of the so-good-it's-still controversial "Dark Knight Strikes Again," Miller drew a six-page "Tales of the New Gods" back-up story for Walt Simonson's "Orion" series. The Simonson-penned back-up, which appeared in issue #3 of that comic, expands on that one-page scene of a son being ripped away from his mother. It's Kirby as filtered through Miller as reimagined in a post-"300" cosmic manner. It's also one of the very few times in his career -- the only time in his mature style -- that Miller drew a story about characters created by Jack Kirby.

Think about that for a moment. One of the most significant artists in the comic book medium, Frank Miller, rarely drew any Jack Kirby characters, even though Jack Kirby created half of the known superhero universe. Even though late-phase Frank Miller looks a bit similar to late-phase Kirby, if not in rendering then at least in blocky design, in bold inky gestures, in powerful-images-per-page quotient. A comic book master working in a genre dominated by the influence of Jack Kirby, and yet it's almost as if Miller purposely avoided following in Kirby's footsteps. He stuck to the street-level characters, the ones in the margins of the Marvel Universe. Or he created his own, which, honestly, is following in the footsteps of Kirby.

But what do we get when we take Frank Miller and put him inside a pure Kirby milieu? In the world of New Genesis and Apokolips? In the world where Darkseid's craggy face dominates every scene, metaphorically, if not literally?

And, hell, Darkseid was born for Frank Miller's pen and ink, wasn't he? Either that, or Frank Miller has increasingly turned his own style into a more Apokoliptian mode. His characters sport stone visages on a regular basis, but the stone has become more crudely chiseled in the past fifteen or twenty years. And Miller's work in the past decade seems sculpted by mad Parademons. Mad Parademons with an eye for vicious beauty.

I asked a bunch of questions in the paragraphs above, but luckily "Orion" #3 answers them for us. In that Miller-drawn back-up, "Nativity," we see the effect of his style on the world of the New Gods, and the effect of the New Gods on his style. It's not so much that "Nativity" is a transformative piece for Miller -- it's not one of the stories that shows him transitioning into a bold new style, the way "Ronin" was, or "Dark Knight Returns," or his first "Sin City" tale in "Dark Horse Presents" -- but its emblematic of his mature style. It's the exclamation point at the end of his run that started with "Sin City" branched off into "300" and the circled back to "Sin City" again before jumping into further abstraction and movie-making in the 21st century. Or maybe "Nativity" isn't an exclamation point, but just a firm period. A full stop.

"Nativity" begins with helmets on pikes. The aftermath of war and the ruins of an empire. A fallen statue lies in the middle of the page, remnants of the old gods, long gone. The hooded characters, wielding torches, recall Miller's Persians from "300," even while they gather around what seems to be the shattered remains of pseudo-Greek art. In Jack Kirby's cosmology, the New Gods did replace the Old Gods. Whatever Ragnarok ended the old era helped to spawn the new, and just as Kirby built this new universe atop the wreck of his previous creations -- he drew both the DC version of "Thor" and the far-more-popular Marvel version -- Miller seems to build his version of Apokalips on the shattered foundation of his most famous ancient military epic.

Walt Simonson's declarative sentences, in grandiose omniscient captions and in the dialogue of the characters, is reminiscent of Miller's own. It's far closer to Miller's diction and syntax in "300" than it is to Kirby's Fourth World writing. As the examples in the opening paragraphs of this column show, Kirby's declarations were terse and violent, and punctuated by double exclamation points more often than not. Simonson's are brutally poetic, just like the ones favored by Miller -- the hard-boiled majesty of lines like, "I carry within me the blossoming instrument of his annihilation." That's Tigra speaking, and while Kirby draws Tigra as the embodiment of feral rage -- as befitting her name -- Miller draws her as a bushy-eyebrowed, high-foreheaded matron. Her big eyes and big lips and wide cheekbones make her an unmistakably Frank Millerian character, even though she isn't that much off-model from the Kirby original.

Still, Simonson and Miller remake her as a woman of pride and dignity. She lurks in the shadows and meets with hooded men and women in the darkness because she knows better than to trust her mate. "Darkseid's days are numbered," she says on page one of "Nativity," without the hysterics of "New Gods" #7.

Page two is where Miller shows his facility with light and shadow, as he depicts the birth of Orion solely through flickering shadows on the cave wall. It's no Platonic commentary on the reality of the old gods vs. the new, but instead it's a bold graphic statement all its own. The cracks in the cave wall turn the shadows into fragments, puzzle pieces of humanoid form as Tigra resists the injection of pain-relieving drugs -- "Fool! What's wrong with pain?!" she says, grabbing the helpful hands and pushing them away. By the penultimate panel, Miller's shadows on the wall turn almost into pure abstraction. Wisps of hair is can be seen, but Tigra's form is no longer recognizable in silhouette, and the final panel shows the baby Orion, eyebrows so prominent, they appear even in shadow. "It does not cry. It roars," reads Simonson's caption.

The third page features a single word, "Nativity," and a single image, Orion's helmet -- lacking the silver gleam of Kirby's original, but still the same shape, even in it's golden hue -- against a field of black. A few purple splatters dot the page, perhaps indicating blood, perhaps indicating the stars of the Fourth World.

On page four, Miller breaks the page in half, but the bottom half is sub-divided for dramatic pacing. The top half of the page shows Tigra and Orion, surrounded by her followers. The bottom half, broken into four panels of varying sizes, show the moment in which Tigra names her son, and then Darkeid's head looms from behind a brick wall.

That last panel of the page, the pose of Darkseid, the angle of the image, the edge of brick, recalls Kirby's Darkseid from "New Gods" #4. Miller seems to be remixing Kirby's Darkseid pose, alluding to that specific image while giving it a more stark depiction. Kirby's Darkseid has eyeballs that look suspiciously around the corner, while Miller's Darkseid has an ominous red glare as he speaks to his wife. Though it seems that he's almost talking to himself when he asks, "Have I no say in the naming of our child, wife?" Expecting no answer, his lizard-like minions blast away, slaughtering Tigra's hooded companions on page five.

As Darkseid's guards fire into the small crowd and Darkseid smashes Tigra in the face, the only thing that breaks the panel borders on the entire page are the eyebrows of Orion. Is it an indication of the power of his vision -- that he will remember what he sees during this scene until his dying days -- or an indication that he is his mother's son, physically? It's both. And just as the topmost panel shows the gaze of Orion, so does the bottom center panel. Orion sees his mother suffer, and even moments after his birth, he is aware.

Miller's final page features six vertically-oriented, symmetrical panels with three inset images. Darksied holds baby Orion, who once again gets a close-up, though this time his eyes seem to look in judgment on his mother, as if to say, "your weakness disappoints me." In reality, of course, he says nothing. (Even on Apokalips, babies can't speak English right away.) Tigra reaches up and shows a moment of Kirby-level hysterics for only a moment, blood covering her face, as she shouts, "Orion!" before we see Darksied walk out of the cave in silence.

The bottom tier of panels recalls the opening two pages, as Tigra regains her dignity -- though the blood dripping from her chin and her angular jaw show more restrained anger than we saw in the beginning -- and then snaps the neck of her last surviving follower. Her nurse, perhaps, who she assumes has betrayed her to Darkseid. The neck-snapping images, shown as a shadow on the cave wall, recalls the image pattern of Orion's birth. The death providing the end-rhyme, punctuated by the final panel of Tigra holding her shoulder, posed with feet apart like a character from "Ronin" or "300," resigned to what awaits her, but not unprepared.

"Our day will come," she says, with a period at the end. No need to exclaim.

And that's Frank Miller's take on Jack Kirby. A relatively humble one, but not without its moments of potent imagery. And, visually -- though Miller's work is usually anything but humble -- it sums up Miller's work, really. It's a six page précis on his style, done as a tribute to the King of Comics. And maybe it informed his later work. Maybe "Dark Knight Strikes Again" had the spirit of Kirby running through it, in a way "Dark Knight Returns" never did. Or maybe this six page tribute from "Orion" #3 was the beginning and the end of Miller's Kirby moment. And it's a nice one.

Look for more Frank Miller commentary/analysis/evaluation/celebration this week from David Brothers and some of the internet's best and brightest, and Chad Nevett and I will surely talk about Miller on this week's Splash Page Podcast. It's semi-official Frank Miller week, "Booze, Broads, & Bullets," and you're invited.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, jack kirby, frank miller, new gods

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